First of all, I would like to point out that I did in fact resist the urge to write this entire review in Grootspeak, which I think should count for something.
In case you’ve been living under a rock pile of vintage analog audio equipment, Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest offering from Marvel Studios. The movie follows the adventures of Peter Quill AKA Star-Lord and a bunch of other obscure Marvel characters that are almost too weird to be real but are in fact quite indicative of Marvel’s 70s output. Which is appropriate, considering the movie’s anachronistic soundtrack (as evidenced by the overuse of Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling”) in the advertising campaign. But if you’re anything like me, and somehow haven’t gotten sick of the ironic juxtaposition of 70s pop music set against the backdrop of a technicolor Mos Eisley, I’m here to tell you that Guardian’s of the Galaxy is the greatest remake of Footloose that you will likely ever see.
Are you sick of my jokes and silly 80s references yet? No? Good, because this movie’s got ‘em in spades. (If yes, well, I’m sorry, but please keep reading and I’ll stop.) And remarkably, they always feel fresh and funny, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. By all means, this movie should be a failure, with a cast of characters that no one in the comic world even cared about until 2008, let alone the general movie-going public. But Director James Gunn is absolutely in his element here, with help from co-writer Nicole Perlman. It has the B-movie wackiness of Tromeo and Juliet with a bigger budget, the sci-fi horror smarts of Slither, the indie heart of Super, and so much more. Gunn knows his tropes, and knows how to tell a strong story. Guardians feels like an homage to everything from The Goonies and its 80s-Action-Comedy ilk to Raiders of the Lost Ark to, well, Marvel’s The Avengers.
On its surface, Guardians follows a very similar structure to The Avengers, but with much more risque language—a group of extraordinary individuals with clashing personalities are brought together around an Infinity Stone (which they explicit mention in this movie!) and must learn to function as a team. But whereas audiences were already familiar with the characters in The Avengers, and each one already had an altruistic heart, the cast of Guardians are motivated by the need to kill, exploit, or otherwise take advantage of each other. It’s a classic Western or noir setup, where everyone wants something from someone else, so the group is forced into a tenuous truce and must reluctantly unite against a common threat. This ups the stakes tremendously, and makes the teams inevitable bonding that much more satisfying.
Gunn is wise not to bog the film down in exposition. He thrusts the audience into a very bizarre world with gradual, organic information, which works much more masterfully than scrolling yellow text. There’s a rich universe implied beyond the film, similar to Star Wars, and while the audience is intrigued by that world, it never feels overwhelmingly alien (besides the, well, aliens, obviously). It certainly helps that the characters are so wonderfully grounded. The core cast is full of big, dynamic personalities, each remarkably different from the next, but their desires are laid out so simply and straight-forward that you can’t help but sympathize with all of them.
Especially Groot. If you had told me that a CGI tree voice by Vin Diesel would be the heart of Marvel’s summer blockbuster gamble, I would wonder what you were doing in my house and would immediately call the police. But with just three words and a few simplistic facial expressions, Groot is the glue that keeps this ragtag group together and turns them into a real superhero team, and he will absolutely steal your heart along the way. (Heck, look what the tree did for Diesel’s own heart.)
That is, if your heart doesn’t already belong to Chris Pratt, whose roguish charm will surely be compared to a young Harrison Ford. Which is unfair to Pratt, because Star-Lord might put both Han and Indiana to shame. Zoe Saldana does a great job balancing Gamora’s complexities as the Deadliest Woman in the Galaxy while still maintaining a strong moral compass. Gunn took the most liberties with Drax, who serves as a mashup of his purple-suited 90s Infinity Watch incarnation and his more modern appearances. He is the straight-man as homicidal maniac, which makes his moments of earnestness that much more powerful (although the movie does occasionally veer into overly sentimental territory with its themes of friendship). And of course, Rocket is everything I wanted him to be, and more (he even gets a heartbreaking moment that alludes to his comic origins).
The only real problem with the film are its villains, all of whom are written rather two-dimensionally despite some stellar performances. I suppose this is a symptom of having so much of the character-driven story rely on moral ambiguity—when everyone else is playing shades of grey, I guess you have to make your villains all Evil With A Capital E so as not to over-overcomplicate. This unfortunately undermines some of the political ambitions of the movie, whose larger plot focuses on the uneasy peace between the happy friendly Xandarians (whose planet has sunshine and diversity and white people and cops) and the Kree (who we barely see at all besides Ronan, who is very clearly dark and evil and bad and uses Sakaarians as his cronies, who are dark-skinned Ninja Turtle wannabes led by a black guy. But I digress). Lee Pace is certainly imposing in his role, as is Karen Gillan as Nebula, but neither one of them really does anything. Even their respective final showdowns are rather lackluster.
Oh, and then there’s Josh Brolin With Purple Ballsack Chin Thanos, who has twice as much screentime as he did in The Avengers and about the same purpose. His presence was entirely extraneous, beyond his relationships with Nebula and Gamora (which was a disappointing thread). But hey, at least this time he talked! Also when *SPOILERS* Ronan ultimately betrays Thanos and keeps the Infinity Gem for himself, Thanos…just kind of lets it happen, which is probably not the most effective way to build him up as the Biggest Bad of the Marvel Cinematic Univere *END SPOILERS*.
My only other gripe was the *SPOILERS* revelation of Star-Lord as being half-Spartax. There were several subtle hints placed throughout the movie which alluded to this fact (if you were already looking for it), but when it finally became explicit, it felt like a tacked-on and unnecessary attempt to turn Star-Lord into a Chosen One archetype, which, in my opinion, diminished the heroicness of his actions. I would have preferred if the subtle clues were dropped, then the revelation left for the Guardians sequel (which Gunn has already signed on for, and has mentioned Star-Lord’s father as a potentially important plot thread). *END SPOILERS*
While Guardians certainly stands on its own as a retro-action-adventure-space-comedy for the ages, it does have a few subtle connections back to the main Marvel Cinematic Universe (for those of you who are keeping track). The Collector makes the first explicit reference to the Infinity Stones, and savvy viewers will visually connect Guardian’s McGuffin Orb to the Tesseract and the Aether. We get to see a bit of the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well, and how it involves the Celestials. The Collector also alludes to Groot’s royal status, and a certain telepathic Russian space dog makes an appearance as well (no cigar-smoking ducks, unless that was saved for the post-credits scene). As for the Nova Corps, well, they’re not quite the Galactic Super Cops That Are Totally Not Green Lanterns that some of us may know and love. Instead, they’re just the peacekeeping force of Xandar, which isn’t a particularly special planet. If anything, Xandar functions more like the Shi’ar Empire does in the comics, especially the antagonistic relationship with the Kree (I suspect that the Shi’ar rights are wrapped up with Fox, and this is Marvel’s way around that). And again, we hardly see any Kree besides Ronan, so don’t expect any clues about healing blood or T.A.H.I.T.I. (although there are some Sakaarians, Planet Hulk fans!)
Unfortunately, the preview screening that I attended did not include a post-credits teaser of any kind; I guess that’s Marvel’s way of making us free-loaders come back and pay for it (damn them!). But it was okay, because Guardians of the Galaxy put such a huge and stupid smile on my face that I didn’t particularly care. It fully deserves to be the quirky underdog sci-fi hit that Serenity should have been. And if you’re concerned based on the trailers that it’s all jokes and no heart, well, you’re in for a world of hurt. I’d put this in my top 3 Marvel movies so far (along with The Avengers and The Winter Soldier) and I, for one, can’t wait to see it again.
Thom Dunn is a Boston-based writer, musician, homebrewer, and new media artist. Thom enjoys Oxford commas, metaphysics, and romantic clichés (especially when they involve whiskey and robots). He is a graduate of Clarion Writer’s Workshop at UCSD, and he firmly believes that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is the single worst atrocity committed against mankind. Find out more at thomdunn.net.